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Don’t Miss Kwanzaa

Dec. 28, 2007
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The journey of Kwanzaa is constantly evolving. Full of spirit, struggle and, most importantly, hope, Kwanzaa is part of the African-American quest for identity with Black Africa. The word Kwanzaa means “first fruits” and is based on the celebration of a community’s first harvest, a ritual that was commonly performed in ancient Africa. These “first fruits” were often brought to the altars of the gods as a sacrifice in prayers to ancestors for continued health and communal prosperity.

Maulana Karenga, who established the Kwanzaa holiday in 1966 and currently chairs the National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO), describes Kwanzaa as “a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.” The journey of Kwanzaa is therefore a journey into oneself.

Kwanzaa is built on Nguzo Saba, seven principles that guide daily experiences and ultimately shape the human life experience. These are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). All principles are equally vital in the growth of individuals, establishment of vibrant communities, furtherance of social justice and promotion of spiritual well-being.

According to Alderman Joe Davis, who chairs Milwaukee’s annual African World Festival, “Kwanzaa signifies a sense of self-awareness and commitment to community.” He adds that the principle of kuumba is key to finding solutions that effect sustainable change not only in Milwaukee, but in other parts of the world as well.

More Than Words

As you read this article, you may be wondering: “How can Kwanzaa be relevant to my life, family or organization?” Partaking in and attending a celebration of this holiday may be one way to find out. Every year, the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum kicks off the celebration of Kwanzaa in Milwaukee on Dec. 26 at 6 p.m. Clayborn Benson, the society’s executive director, has hosted the Kwanzaa celebration since the inception of the museum in 1987. Over the years, the total attendance has grown from 13 people in the first year to 3,300 in 2006.

Prior to founding the Black Historical Museum, Benson worked as a photojournalist and traveled to Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, the former Soviet Union, China and other countries in a bid to chronicle the history of museums while studying other cultures. Benson says that Kwanzaa is “more than just words or a holiday … it is meditative sustenance all year round.” It’s a time for “honoring African ancestors in preparation for the unborn while celebrating a unity with all peoples that has no religious ties.” Benson, a Baptist, stressed that Kwanzaa is a means to preserve the African-American connection to Africa.

This year’s Kwanzaa gathering at the Black Historical Society will focus on the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of civil rights marches in Milwaukee. Benson says that the seven-day candle-lit celebration is one of a kind. It’s free and open to the public, and people can sample an array of “African food, music, poetry, drumming [and] pouring of libations.”

The ceremony itself is colorful and consists of lighting seven candles surrounded by the seven symbols of Kwanzaa. Each symbol correlates to one of the principles of Kwanzaa and furthers an African cultural value. The symbols are mazao (the crops) and mahindi (the corn), which symbolize the harvest, kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup), symbolizing unity, kinara (the candleholder), which holds the seven candles, mkeka (the mat), symbolizing history, zawadi (the gifts), which symbolize labor and love, and bendera, the red, black and green flag based on Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African ideology.

Following the example of the Black Historical Society, the celebration of Kwanzaa in Milwaukee continues to become more prominent as different community leaders and organizations, churches and individual families incorporate it into the frenzy of December holiday festivities. Amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, the observation of Hanukkah, World AIDS Day and International Children’s Day, Kwanzaa is a time for self-evaluation, reflection, reconciliation and the coming together of family and friends.

For more information on the annual opening ceremony on Dec. 26, please visit the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum (2620 W. Center St.) or call 372-7677. This year, try something new, get out of your comfort zone and…don’t miss Kwanzaa!


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